Chapter 9 - Babylonia and Assyria (Part I)

"From Under the Dust of Ages"

You must have stopped many times to look in wonder at the huge man-headed bulls and lions on our way to the Egyptian and Greek Galleries. You have certainly compared and contrasted them with the other monsters of our acquaintance - the Egyptian Sphinx or the Greek Centaur.

The number of their legs - those legs that show the great treading-down power of the bull or lion - must have puzzled us till we understood that the sculpture is a sort of double relief which had to look well from both side and front, and so a fifth leg was added for appearance's sake.

The rows and rows of neat flat curls add also to the effect, as well as the well-tied sash round the strong-looking body. The great eagles' wings suggest swiftness that cannot be tired, and towering high above us is the head which endows the monster with the intelligence and wisdom of man.

These man-headed monsters once stood at the gateways [pg 144] which led into the royal palaces of Assyria, and were looked upon as the guardians of the footsteps of the kings who made them.

Before seeking out the story of these footsteps, and of much else that came before and after, all told in the vivid language and pictures on the remains in the Assyrian and Babylonian Rooms in the British and other museums; let us first look well at the maps in the Nimrud Gallery, close to the bulls.

There is the Bridge of Nations, in the south-west corner, leading from the country of one great river, the Nile, towards the countries of two mighty streams -- the Euphrates and the Tigris. Trace their courses from the mountains in the north, noticing how far westwards the Euphrates flows in its journey to the Persian Gulf. As you see, Babylonia, with its capital, Babylon, on the Euphrates, lies nearest to the head of the Gulf, and Assyria with its capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris, lies farther north.

Babylonia was the older kingdom, which sent out colonies up the two great rivers to found cities and states. Later, these became not only independent under one king, but strong enough to conquer the Mother Country.

Next let us glance at the names of some of the neighbours of these countries on the two rivers. Beginning on the east side there is Persia, Elam, Media; to the west are the countries of the Hittites, the Syrians, and the Canaanites, part of whose land was conquered by the Israelites when they came out of Egypt.

The map shows us further that a great wedge of [pg 145] desert pushes up between the Euphrates and the strip of seaboard countries near the Mediterranean. This wedge and desert kept the nations on the banks of the Nile and those on the Euphrates and Tigris apart for many centuries. Armies could not pass by a direct way from on the other, but had to travel by two sides of a triangle and to force the key of the route where the desert was narrowest about Karkemish, the capital of the Hittites, and so reach the upper waters of the Euphrates.

As you think over this you will understand what is meant when these countries lying in the highway that connected the great powers are called buffer states. All through the years of conflict these buffer states were the scene of perpetual war; conquered first by Egypt, then by Assyria; now rebelling, now in league on against another.

The Bible history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel relates a great deal of all this, and on Egyptian monuments are found accounts of wars with these nations of Western Asia. We have already seen that these Egyptian accounts could not be read till the key was found to unlock the mysteries of the hieroglyphic writing, and this so lately as last century.

The monuments themselves, however, to a great extent have stood on the banks of the Nile for thousands of years in the brilliant sunshine for all to see. How different has been the case with the countries in the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris! They are mentioned in the Bible, and old travellers and historians have left scattered notices of them through the [pg 146] centuries -- here and there -- but the cities themselves and their contents were no longer to be seen; only stories of their wonder and greatness survived.

If you travel in those countries to-day you will see great mounds rising to varying heights above the dreary sandy plains in the south, as well as in the more hilly country of the north. Sometimes villages are built on these mounds, sometimes crops are raised on their tops, sometimes they are gay with wild flowers.

It was only last century that people because in earnest to seek to find out what those mounds were, and what they contained. These mounds -- you can see some fine models of them at the Louvre -- are the graves in which the cities, temples, palaces, of Babylonia and Assyria have been buried and forgotten for some two thousand years.

You can fancy the excitement of the first explorers as the dust of ages was laboriously cleared away from the ruins that lay beneath. When the head of the winged bull emerged, the Arab diggers were terror-stricken, and fled to their village, thinking some dreadful monster had been roused to make an end of them; later they came to the conclusion that the English were taking it home for their queen and the rest of the unbelievers to worship!

It is not easy to understand how a country once thickly peopled, and dotted over with flourishing cities, tow of them believed to have been larger than London, could become so desolate and forgotten.

But, to begin with, much of the building was set on great platforms of bricks and earth, so as to be [pg 147] out of reach of the river floods. Then the buildings themselves were chiefly made of sun-dried bricks, which would easily turn back again into the clay of which they were made, and the roofs were supported on wooden beams and pillars. So when the conquerors set fire to the doomed city, the roofs and brick walls fell in, and the heavy rains, season after season, gradually covered all up with mud and clay.

As to the inhabitants, many were killed or taken prisoners, or settled elsewhere, and as wave after wave of newcomers passed over the land, each knew less and less of its once powerful owners in the centuries that were gone.

Now let us glance round to see the sort of remains that have come to us from the mounds.

Besides the “guardians of the path of the king,” we have the sculptured slabs which once lined the walls of their palaces, se out in the Nimrud Gallery, so called from the mound of Nimrud, the site of the ancient city of Calah, about twenty miles south of Nineveh. Many more of these slabs are to be seen in the Assyrian Saloon and also in the Nineveh Gallery, from the mound of Kouyunjik, part of the ancient site of Nineveh itself.

Besides these slabs there are numberless little clay tablets, like cakes of soap, in the Babylonian and Assyrian Rooms upstairs. Some are oblong, some round, all are covered with writing, as are also the barrel-shaped and many-sided large cylinders in the upper room.

Here you will also find a large collection of cylinder seals, like long stone beads (you will remember similar [pg 148] ones amongst the Egyptian treasures), which were generally used to make an impression on the soft clay of the tablets. Round the walls are all sorts of stone and clay objects, as well as a few larger statues and memorials, standing out in the rooms.

The illustrations on the slabs and cylinder seals look stiff and often confused, but from them and from the writing on clay tablets and cylinders, looking like unending combinations of arrow-headed or wedge-shaped lines, we can gather a glowing story full of unexpected wonders.

The story is a long one, as long as that of Egypt, and it will lead us into the very presence of great kings whose names and deeds are already known to us. Visions of centuries or prosperous farming and great wealth will pass before our eyes, as well as those of the excitement of the hunt, and the desolation of war.

The contents of great libraries, too, are open to our gaze, safe in the cases, though the shelves that once help them, and the walls of their original home, have been lying in ashes for 2500 years.

When the mounds were first explored, the writing to be found on the newly found monsters, slabs, cylinders, and tablets was still a mystery, though many scholars had been at work for years trying to unravel it from various inscriptions that had been found in the countries round.

In the second Northern Gallery are not only casts of many of these inscriptions, but specimens of the paper squeezes -- they look like the raised writing for the blind -- made from a very important inscription [pg 149] in three languages, which could not be carried away from the spot like the Rosetta Stone, because it is cut high up on a great rock at Behistun, in Persia.

When the dauntless traveller and scholar arrived at the Rock to get his copy he found his ladders were too short; so he had himself lowered by a rope from the top.

Then followed months and months of hard, patient study. No one knew even one of the three languages, as had been the case with the Rosetta Stone; they only knew others like one of them, and derived from the same stock. Success came at last, and now it is possible to get grammar and dictionary, and set to work to study and read cuneiform or wedge-shaped writing, and so receive the message across the centuries, left on the clay and stone as the old king said, “for future ages, for all time.”

In the beginning this writing was a series of pictures, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the earliest signs, for instance, for a fork, an arrow, a comb, a bird, a fish, are easily distinguishable.

This was the invention of the old inhabitants of the land between he rivers -- the Sumerians and Akkadians before the Babylonians settled there; and as time went on the writing gradually became more stiff and wedge-like and was used to express the language not only of the Babylonians and Assyrians, but of nearly all their neighbours, from Syria on the west to Persia on the east, just as Roman letters are now used nearly all over Europe.

For a long time, when the Babylonians had settled [pg 150] down amongst the older inhabitants, the languages were spoken side by side, as French and Flemish are in Belgium now. When this ceased, about 2000 B.C., the memory of the older tongues was kept up in the literature of the country, more or less till the end of its history, much as we use Latin and Greek now.

Hence, in the cases of tablets, you will find constant reference made to the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, with translations into Babylonian and Assyrian, and many spelling books, grammars, and dictionaries, for those who had to learn the dead languages.

The men with shaved heads in the sculptures are of the older race. There is a most quaint Sumerian person of high rank, with folded hands in the Babylonian Room -- the Babylonians and Assyrians were famous (like the bulls) for fine beards and heads of hair. This is a specimen of Archaic Sumerian sculpture. A very fine specimen of late Sumerian sculpture stands in the centre of the same room.

The gods of the Sumerians were also kept in memory through the ages, such as Ishtar, the great giver of victory in war, the Sun and Moon gods, and those of the earth, sky, and sea.

Some of the very earliest of the Babylonian relics in this room are the stone sockets, in which the pivot of the gates turned, also memorial tablets belonging to the governors or kings of the states which later were united under one ruler.

The exhibition of writing in the Babylonian Room will show you the gradual development of the Babylonian [pg 151] writing from the picture signs which were probably in use about 3500 B.C.

The second stage of development was the reduction of the pictures to linear signs with as few curves as possible. This was done because wet clay was used for writing.

Later on the straight lines tended to take a triangular form, and so the writing became wedge-shaped, and is called cuneiform.

You will see all these stages in the special exhibit of writing.

On one of the memorial tablets (dated perhaps about 1500) there is the name of a king of Ur, which name at once brings to mind the calling of Abraham from this very city, Ur of the Chaldees, where he lived with his family.

The bricks inscribed with the name of this king come from the temples he built to the Sun and Moon gods. Numerous other bricks of this and later date record much building of temples as well as restorations of older ones, also the cutting of a great canal. We are hereby reminded that the making of bricks, where stone was scarce and the best clay very plentiful, was one of the chief industries in a country of great builders.

A flood of light is cast upon the life of the times, which may have been near those of Abraham, by the clay tablets in a table-case. Fortunately, for later generations, these have been practically indestructible; they are the letters, annals, business documents, as well as what we call books, all written on finely prepared clay, when moist, with a three-edged stylus, [pg 152] and then hardened by heat of sun or fire. Many of the tablets are still almost perfect, in spite of occasional dampness, the destruction of the cities and temples by fire, and the long burial in the mounds.

Examine the labels slowly. There are deeds relating to buying, selling, and letting house property, gardens, fields, and plantations; others which show how slaves were bought or hired, how children were adopted, how money was borrowed.

Many letters from kings to their officials refer to the making and cleaning of the canals which crossed the country between the rivers, storing water to use on the land, and making it so fertile that it produced two crops a year.

“The land of the double spring-time” became a great corn-growing country and very rich.

Many orders refer to sending stores of all kinds to Babylon -- clothes to wear, dates, oil, and other necessaries. There is a very interesting one from the great king Khammurabi about the twentieth century. There are many of his tablets on view, but this particular one gives directions about felling trees to use in smelting metal.

Other tablets deal with the protection of fishing rights; of arrangement for the transport of sheep and lambs, and for their shearing. Another gives orders for sending images of the gods and goddesses from one place to another. The bustle and worries of the old life are very real. You realize how much it all mattered -- four thousand years ago -- how they had to rush about, clean out canals in three days, find extra [pg 153] shepherds in great haste for the shearing, travel night and day to obey the king’s behest; and on all sides were the agitations of gaining and losing money, of going to law, and the ever-present terror of offending the great king.



The circular tablets are chiefly lists of fields and estates with their measurements. Very often the boundaries of these fields became changed from the flooding of the rivers. There are many interesting boundary stones in the wall-cases of different periods.

The large square tablets are chiefly accounts concerning wages -- for men, women and children -- also particulars about grain and wool for purposes of the revenue.

All this commerce must needs have been carried on by many people, whose relations to each other had to be settled by good laws. Khammurabi was the great lawgiver, and it is said of him that he “established the heart of the country in righteousness.”

Look well at the cast of the pillar on which his great code of laws -- the oldest in the world, some say -- is inscribed. There is his portrait on the top receiving the laws from the Sun god. He set up the original of this pillar in Babylon, and copies of it in other cities, so that if any one felt aggrieved at any loss or bad treatment he could go and find out the law bearing on his case.

But Khammurabi’s stele was not found in Babylon, but in Susa, one of the most ancient cities of Elam and Persia. It was n Elamite king who carried it there many centuries after Khammurabi had set it up. He [pg 154] stored it in his museum, where he exhibited other treasures from Babylonia. You will be interested to notice the space he had cleared at the bottom by erasing several sections of the code. Here he meant to engrave his own name and great deeds, as he has done on five other defaced monuments.

During the centuries which followed, the kings of Egypt were gradually getting more and more power over the nations that dwelt about the high road to Assyria. Thothmes III. -- you have his name in the fifteenth century, he who set up Cleopatra’s Needle -- was one of them, also the manly Queen Hat-shep-sut, who sent her fleets to the Land of Punt, and who built a most magnificent temple.

In the fourteenth century we come to the names of two Egyptian kings, who not exacted tribute from the buffer states, but overran the country of the two rivers itself. Both these kings were called Amen-hetep; one the husband, the other the son, of a lady from Western Asia -- Queen Thi.

Amen-hetep (or Amen-ophis) IV. was so much influenced by his mother that he adopted the religion of her country and built a fine new city, with a temple and a palace in which to carry it out, and changed his name from “the favourite of Amen” to that of “the splendour of the Sun’s rays.” You can imagine how angry all this made the powerful priests of Amen.

Now amongst the ruins of his city, not far from the old tombs at Beni-Hasan, were found numbers of letters and dispatches in cuneiform writing on the familiar clay tablets. These are to be see, at least [pg 155] some of them, in a table-case in the Babylonian Room, headed Tell-el-Amarna (or Tall al-Amarnah) tablets -- this being the Arab name of a village close by.

These letters are from kings of Babylonia and Assyria, also from governors of various provinces, and give a graphic picture of the relations between the kings of Egypt and Western Asia in the fifteenth or fourteenth centuries B.C. Translations of many are to be seen in the case, and are most interesting reading. Some refer to the sending of Mesopotamian princesses as wives for the Egyptian kings and beg for an Egyptian princess in return.

Then there is a great deal about gifts of all kinds -- chariots, horses, much gold, also a gold-and-ivory throne, even the statue of a goddess. There is much complaint when equally handsome presents are not sent in return.

Many of the dispatches speak of rebellions, and beg for troops and arms and corn for food. One governor says he is shut up “like a bird in a cage”; another, that he is “stricken with fear.”

These tablets all show us how much coming and going there was at this time over the Bridge of Nations; a constant passing of couriers and scribes, presents and provisions, soldiers and bridal processions.

Ever since Assyria had become independent, there had been perpetual quarrels. Chiefly about the boundaries of the two kingdoms. At last, soon after the beginning of the thirteenth century, Assyria conquered Babylonia, and managed to remain the ruling power, with occasional reverses, for over six hundred years.

[pg 156] The Assyrians were more energetic and better fighters than the Babylonians, who were very successful in commerce and agriculture, and as devoted to learning as the old Sumerians had been before them. We must remember that the climate of the hilly, northern kingdom was more bracing than that of the low plain to the south, between the slow winding rivers which were often flooded.

Towards the end of the twelfth century we learn of the removal of the slab engraved with Khammurabi’s code from Babylon to Susa, while about the beginning of the twelfth century you can picture Tiglath Pileser I., a mighty old Assyrian king, who tells us on his cylinders in the Babylonian and Assyrian Room of his prowess in war -- the countries he conquered, the spoil he took, including images of the gods. There is a picture on one clay prism showing a procession of captured gods who look rather like Guy Fawkes aloft on his chair.

Tiglath Pileser I. was a great hunter too: he specially mentions leopards; and when he visited the Phœnicians, the great sailors and traders of the old world, he even “mounted” a ship and went for an excursion on the Mediterranean. Unfortunately the name of the monster of the deep (perhaps a dolphin) that he succeeded in killing is erased from the relief.

King David is believed to have lived near this time, in about the eleventh century.

In the Babylonian Room, look, in the table-case at the earliest known map of the world -- such a very small and curious world! The map is of course of clay, and was probably drawn in [pg 157] the eighth or seventh century B.C. It illustrates a story quite well known even in the fourteenth century, and seems to refer to the legend which accumulated round the heroic figure of King Sargon of Agade, who conquered an empire in Western Asia about the twenty-sixth century B.C.

There is Babylon in the centre, and the ocean round the edge; the two great rivers are also shown, with the mountains at their source, and the swamps at their mouth.

There is also to be seen part of a plan of Babylon, showing the position of the great gate of the Sun god, also several chronicle tablets giving names of Babylonian kings.

The worship of the Sun god is beautifully shown on the celebrated tablet from the Temple of Sippar. There is the god himself seated on a throne in a shrine, holding symbols of eternity. Notice the palm trunk column before him, and the disk of the sun held up by ropes, and the priest leading the king to worship.

It must have been a gorgeous temple with its gold and lapis lazuli, a fit setting for the fine garments of the priests. The tablet gives an account of the restoration of this ancient temple by a king of Babylon in the ninth century, just about the time when the kingdom of Assyria was entering the period of its greatest power and glory. It lasted for three hundred years, and during that time there are at least six or seven kings whose names (rather difficult at first sight) and bearded faces will become perfectly familiar to us as we look again and again at the relics from their times.

(Chapter 9 typed by Janel Folden)


Previous Chapter  |  Next Chapter